Divorce Attorney's Picture

by Samuel K. Darling, Bellevue divorce lawyer

How do you serve papers in your Washington State divorce or family law matter? In this context, serve means to convey documents to the other side, not just initial service of process that starts the case. “Personally serve” papers starting the case (summons and petition), subpoenas, restraining orders, or orders setting contempt hearings. Almost all other papers can be delivered to the other side’s lawyer’s office or mailed.

For fuller explanations, read the rest of this article. It contains three sections:

1) How Do I Personally Serve Someone?
2) What If I Can’t Personally Serve Someone?
3) How Do I Send Documents that Don’t Need to Be Personally Served?

I. How Do I Personally Serve Someone?

In Washington, you personally serve papers by having someone 18 or older and of sound mind deliver them to the recipient. The person effecting service cannot be you. It doesn’t need to be a professional process server though. For example, a friend can do it. An old case says your attorney can too.

Whoever effects service should fill out a declaration of service, sometimes called an affidavit of service or return of service. Click here to download a declaration of service template. Save a copy of the fully executed declaration and file the original with the court clerk’s office for the county of your case.

You’ll notice the declaration of service contains two possibilities for effecting service of process – directly upon the person or “abode service”. More on that next.

1) Directly Upon the Person. Of the two ways to effect personal service, the direct method is simplest. Have someone hand the documents directly to the opposing party. If the opposing party refuses the documents, your process server can drop them, say something to the effect of “you’ve been served”, and walk away.

2) Abode Service. Abode service is the second form of personal service, and it’s only slightly more complicated. Under this scenario, your process server goes to the recipient’s home and delivers the documents to someone of suitable age (best if over 18) and sound mind living there. Again, if the person refuses the documents, the process server can drop them and say something like “you’ve been served”.

3) Personally Serving People Outside Washington. The same rules usually apply when serving someone in a state outside Washington, though some states require you to use professional process servers or law enforcement.

Serving people outside the United States can be complicated. Many foreign countries joined the United States in signing the Hague Convention on international service. If the foreign country in question is a signatory, then the Hague Convention details how service is accomplished, with different Hague countries allowing service different ways. If the country isn’t a Hague signatory, the process of serving papers becomes even more complicated. The specifics for each country exceed the scope of this article.

4) Personally Serving Entities, Such as a Business or the Government. Similarly, personally serving entities goes beyond the scope of this article. It’s mentioned here simply to ensure you know the process is different. In fact, the process differs from entity to entity depending whether it’s an LLC, corporation, bank, local government, state government, federal government, and so on. Hopefully our firm will eventually write a separate guide on the topic. In the meantime, you might consider speaking with a legal professional on an unbundled basis if you need to subpoena an entity for your case, such as if you need to subpoena business records.

5) Personal Service By Mail in Child Support Modifications. The service rules are more lenient if you are seeking to modify child support. In addition to the normal options, you can have an adult other than you send the documents by any form of mail requiring a return receipt. Unlike in other family law cases, you do not need court permission serve the petition by mail, and it essentially functions as personal service rather than invoking the more cumbersome rules of traditional service by mail.

6) No Service Necessary for Joinder. You don’t need to serve the summons and petition on the other party if you file your petition by joinder. Filing by joinder means both parties sign the bottom of the petition indicating they agree to everything the petition says. Washington’s petition templates usually contain a joinder section at the bottom. You can find all Washington’s court templates at the Washington Court Forms website.

II. What If I Can’t Personally Serve Someone?

Sometimes rules require personal service, but you can’t accomplish it. Here are your options.

1. Ask to Accept Service. You can send the document to the recipient or his or her lawyer by any means available and ask the recipient or his or her attorney to sign an acceptance of service. Click here for an example acceptance of service form. Most commonly our firm adopts this approach when trying to serve someone represented by counsel. Lawyers often agree to accept service as a professional courtesy.

We also sometimes ask the recipient to accept service if he or she is in a foreign country, and we don’t want to bother complying with laws and treaties pertaining to international service of process. In that situation we might offer the recipient money to accept service, such as $500. It’s a win-win. Turning down the $500 would only delay the inevitable, and paying $500 to the other side is often cheaper than personally serving someone outside the United States.

Asking the other side to accept service has a glaring downside, of course. The other side might decline to accept service, and now they know you’re trying to serve them.

2. Trickery. Somewhat surprisingly, you’re allowed to use trickery to serve documents. Let’s say your spouse refuses to open the door for the process server. You could ask an acquaintance to pretend to be a parcel delivery person with a cardboard box. When the other side opens the door to accept the parcel, your friend pulls out the documents from beneath and hands them forward.

There are all kinds of tricks you can employ, from pretending to deliver roses to checking for gas leaks. Just don’t impersonate a police officer or fireperson – that’s illegal.

3. Hide. Your process server can hide in the bushes and wait until the recipient goes out or comes in.

4. Go to Work. Your process server can go to the recipient’s workplace and directly hand the documents to the recipient there. Just don’t disturb the peace if you can avoid it.

5. Set a Hearing. If you have a basis to do so, file a motion against the recipient, and send the motion to the recipient by any means you can, such as email. Even though the motion cannot proceed because of lack of notice, the other side will often appear at the hearing to defend. When he or she shows up for the hearing, have someone serve the documents.

If you ask, the court will usually continue the hearing two weeks so you don’t have to re-file it.

6. Permission to Serve by Publication or Mail (Hard and Usually a Bad Idea). Lastly, you can seek court permission to serve the other side by publication or mail in lieu of person service. Between the two, service by publication is the first resort. Publication involves proving to the court you cannot personally serve the other side because he or she is hiding or has left the state to avoid being served. You then publish notice of the case in a newspaper of general circulation for months and mail it to the last known address.

Service by mail is similar, but you prove to the court that mailing is as likely as publication to provide actual notice.

Service by publication and mail can be difficult, and they’re typically inadvisable. Even if you successfully serve by publication or mail in lieu of personal service, the other side often won’t receive actual notice until the case is over. When the opposing party eventually learns of the case, he or she can often set aside the court’s prior decisions and start the divorce over. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Explaining the exact steps involved in service by publication and mail would exceed the scope of this article.

III. How Do I Send Documents that Don’t Need to Be Personally Served?

After initial service of process (service of the summons and petition), almost all documents in the case (except subpoenas, restraining orders, or orders setting contempt hearings) can be served by dropping them off, hand-to-hand delivery, or mailing them. There is some dispute as to whether you can send your own documents or whether someone needs to do it for you. Better to enlist the help of someone over 18 who is of sound mind.

The person who delivers or mails the documents should complete a declaration of service or mailing. Make a copy of the declaration for your records and file the original with the court clerk. You can download a template declaration of service or mailing by clicking here.

CR 5 contains the exact rules, which vary slightly depending whether the recipient has an attorney.

1. To a Represented Party. The documents should be delivered to the party’s attorney if he or she has one. That means handing them to the attorney, dropping them off with a front desk person or someone else in charge of the law office, or leaving the documents in a conspicuous place at the attorney’s office, usually near or on the front desk. Mailing the documents to the attorney’s office is also sufficient, but they aren’t deemed delivered until three days later. If the third day falls on a non-court day, the mailed documents aren’t considered delivered until the next court day. For example, if the third day falls on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the documents are deemed delivered the Tuesday after Memorial Day – six days after mailing.

2. To an Unrepresented Party. If the other side doesn’t have an attorney, you can have the documents handed directly to the party, delivered to his or her office (just as if you were delivering to an attorney’s office), or left at the recipient’s home with someone of suitable age and discretion living there. You can also have the documents mailed to the other party, just as if mailed to an attorney’s office, including the three-day mailing rule.

If you don’t have the current address, you can use the last known address. It’s advisable but not required to email the person copies in that instance to ensure actual receipt.

3. Electronic Service. Often parties agree that all documents other than original service of process can be served electronically, such as by fax or email. A template electronic service agreement is available by clicking the link in this sentence. The agreement needs to be in writing and signed to be enforceable.

Moreover, a few counties’ local court rules require or authorize electronic service of documents after initial service of process (after service of the summons and petition). For example, King County requires attorneys to serve documents electronically and authorizes unrepresented parties to do so. If you don’t have a lawyer, you should speak with a family law facilitator at the county courthouse for a briefing on local rules. Speaking with a family law facilitator costs about $10 per session. Alternatively, you could speak with a LLLT, which is the legal word’s equivalent to a nurse practitioner.

That’s it! We hope you found this article useful. Our firm believes in making quality legal information available for free on the internet. For more, click the resources tab in this page’s upper right corner.

Or call us at 866-631-0028 to speak with a Genesis attorney or LLLT. From all of us at Genesis, we wish you the best with your family law matter!

Recommended Articles & Videos: